Remember This Day: Understanding the Maimonidean Approach to the Seder

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12 Apr 2022

מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁל תּוֹרָה לְסַפֵּר בְּנִסִּים וְנִפְלָאוֹת שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ
 בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּלֵיל חֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּנִיסָן
שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג ג) “זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם
כְּמוֹ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות כ ח) “זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת”.

It is a biblical positive command, to tell all about the miracles and wonders that were performed for our forefathers in Egypt on the night of the 15th of Nisan. As it is stated (Exodus 13:3), “Remember this day that you went out of Egypt”; just as it is stated (Exodus 20:8), “Remember the day of the Shabbat.”  (Rambam, Laws of Bread and Matzah 7:1)

Maimonides’s stature as a scholar, sage and intellectual luminary is without question. He remains the only sage to systematically codify the entire corpus of Torah and Rabbinic law and his greatness as a philosopher and as a physician has cemented Maimonides as one the preeminent intellectual giants in the History of mankind.

Notwithstanding Maimonides’s greatness, his opinion with regards to the Biblical source for the commandment of Sipur Yetziat Mitzrayim or the telling of the Exodus story is difficult to comprehend.

Almost every other Medieval commentator sources the commandment for the telling of the Exodus story from the verse, Vehegadata Lebincha – “you shall recount to your son” (Exodus 13:8, and for an apparently unknown reason, Maimonides selects a different verse.

Additionally, Maimonides chooses the verse of zachor et hayom hazeh-remember this day as the source for recounting the Exodus on Seder night. 

Remembering the Exodus is either an independent Biblical Commandment or part of an obligation to recite the Shema, and it is performed twice daily. Consequently, it is a little odd that the source for Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim would be another verb of remembering.

Maimonides then inexplicably presents the verse of zachor et yom hashabbat lekadsho remember the Sabbath to keep it holy— as a way of “explaining” his selection of a verb of remembrance, as the source for the telling the Exodus story.

שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג ג) זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם”
כְּמוֹ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות כ ח) “זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת”.

Remembering the Sabbath to keep it holy, is the source for Sanctifying the Sabbath day through the recitation of Kiddush on Friday night, and therefore it would seem to have absolutely no place in a discussion relating to Passover and the commandment of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim. 

Perhaps Maimonides included the verse about Kiddush for Shabbat, because in it lies a clue as to his conceptualization of the Commandment to retell the story of the Exodus.

Concerning the Mitzvah of Kiddush on Shabbat, Maimonides writes in his Sefer Hamitzvot (Aseh 155)

היא שצונו לקדש את השבת
ולאמר דברים בכניסתו וביציאתו
וקדוש היום ומעלתו והבדלו משאר הימים הקודמים ממנו והבאים אחריו,

We are commanded to make a verbal declaration when Shabbat enters and when it leaves We must mention the greatness and exalted character of this day and how it is distinct from the other days of the week 

As opposed to other Medieval commentators, Maimonides asserts that the Sabbath’s closing ceremony of havdalah/separation is part of the Mitzvah of Kiddush and not a separate ritual.

Maimonides repeats this novel idea in his codification of Jewish Law in Hilchot Shabbat 29:1

מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה מִן הַתּוֹרָה לְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת בִּדְבָרִים
 שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר “זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ”…
. וְצָרִיךְ לְזָכְרֵהוּ בִּכְנִיסָתוֹ וּבִיצִיאָתוֹ.
בִּכְנִיסָתוֹ בְּקִדּוּשׁ הַיּוֹם וּבִיצִיאָתוֹ בְּהַבְדָּלָה:

It is a positive duty to express the sanctity of the Sabbath day in words… for it is written “Remember to sanctify the Sabbath day.” One should remember it at its beginning and its conclusion by reciting the Kiddush when the Sabbath begins and the Havdalah when it ends 

Although one might think that the havdalah/separation ritual is ancillary, and not an important part of the Mitzvah of Kiddush, it appears from the aforementioned citations that Havdalah is an integral component of the Commandment of Remembering the Sabbath.

We are commanded to make a verbal declaration when Shabbat enters and when it leaves. One should remember it at its beginning and its conclusion by reciting the Kiddush when the Sabbath begins, and the Havdalah when it ends.

Since both citations contain no discernable difference between the directives for the beginning and the conclusion of Shabbat, it would seem that Shabbat’s distinctive and separate nature is central to the Maimonidean conception of Remembering Shabbat. Logically, the directive of Remembering the Sabbath Day should therefore be understood as remember/know that the Sabbath is different. Just as light and dark are absolutely non-comparable, and just as sanctity and the mundane are poles apart, so too the Sabbath is completely unique in comparison to the six days of creation.

If the conceptualization of the verb of Remembering (the Sabbath) includes a cognizance of the Sabbath’s unique and special character, then Maimonides’s selection of Kiddush as a comparison to Seder night becomes clearer. 

According to Maimonides, the purpose and the focus of Seder would be to; remember/know that Seder Night is completely different from all other nights.

Throughout the year, G-d runs the world through intermediaries. Generally, G-d employs angels, seraphim and messengers as G-d hides, masks and obfuscates his existence. On a conventional day, G-d’s presence is not apparently clear, and there is room for the doubter to question G-d’s existence.

But for one very special and unique moment in History, G-d emerged from “behind the curtain” of nature with which he normally disguises himself, and displayed how he actively runs and controls the world.

– אֲנִי וְלֹא מַלְאָךְ;
 וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ־מִצְרַים. אֲנִי וְלֹא שָׂרָף;
וּבְכָל־אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים. אֲנִי וְלֹא הַשָּׁלִיחַ;
אֲנִי ה’. אֲנִי הוּא וְלֹא אַחֵר.

I, and not an angel. “And I will smite every firstborn” – I, and not a seraph.” And with all the gods of Egypt, I will make judgments” –  I, and not a messenger. “I am the Lord” – I am He, and there is no other

Zachor et hayom hazeh-Remember this day means that on Seder Night we are to focus on the unique aspects of the 15th of Nisan, the events which lead up to it, and to recognize G-d’s unique providence on the first Seder Night, and every Seder Night for all of History.

A potential proof for this conceptualization of telling over the story of the Exodus is Maimonides’s unique opinion with regards to Mah Nishtanah and the Four Questions.

Maimonides writes that despite the fact that the Leader of the Seder is obviously aware of the distinctive nature of the Seder, the Leader “repeats” the Mah Nishtanah and the four questions. 

וְאוֹמֵר הַקּוֹרֵא מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת
 שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִלּוּ פַּעַם אַחַת וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְּעָמִים.
 שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה וְהַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה…

And [then] the Leader says, “How is this night different from all [other] nights? On all other nights we don’t dip even once; but tonight twice. On all other nights we eat chametz and matzah; but tonight, it is all matsa…” – Hilchot Chametz u Matzah 8:2

Since the Seder’s Leader is cognizant of the differences in ritual on Seder night, then his recitation of the Mah Nishtanah must function not as a question of wonderment, but rather as a rhetorical statement- “How is this night different from all other nights.” When the Leader “asks” the Four Questions he is effectively performing a “quasi-Havdalah” and affirming that the 15th of Nisan is completely different and separate from all other nights.

Additionally, the thesis that Seder Night is a function of the distinct character of the 15th of Nisan, explains Maimonides’s opinion with regards to another key section of the Seder. 

Maimonides, states that one has not fulfilled the Mitzvah of telling over the story of leaving Egypt unless one has explained the significance of consuming the Paschal Sacrifice, Matzah and Maror. (The Ramban disagrees and states that the need for explanation is in order to completely fulfill these three commandments.)

כל מִי שֶׁלֹּא אָמַר שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ בְּלֵיל חֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר לֹא יָצָא יְדֵי חוֹבָתוֹ וְאֵלּוּ הֵן.
 פֶּסַח מַצָּה וּמָרוֹר. פֶּסַח עַל שׁוּם….

Anyone who has not said these three things on the night of the fifteenth  has not fulfilled his obligation (of sippur yetziat mitzrayim), and these are them: The Passover sacrifice; matsa; and marror… And these things are called Haggadah (Recounting). – Laws of Bread and Matzah 7:5

The implication of Maimonides’s opinion means that if one related every Midrash about the Plague of Blood, every medieval commentary concerning the Plague of Frogs and every citation from the Zohar with regards to the rest of the Plagues, one has not fulfilled the directive of the telling over of the Passover story.

While it might seem counterintuitive that fulfillment of the Commandment is dependent on the recitation of a short paragraph, if the primary focus of Seder night is the uniqueness of the 15th of Nisan, then Maimonides’s opinion logically flows. The three aforementioned Miztvot are unique to the Seder in that there is a directive to consume them only on the first night of Passover, and because of that, they are inherently linked to the Seder Night experience.

Finally, it is not surprising that Maimonides omits the section of the Haggadah which speaks of the Splitting of the Red Sea which transpired on the 7th of Passover. If Seder’s significance is based on the unique characteristics of the 1st day of Passover, (Remember this day) then the events of the 7th day of Passover are not germane, and completely irrelevant to the Seder experience.

The fact that we relate the events of the Exodus at the beginning of Passover and not at its conclusion seems to indicate that the Seder experience is (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), not the end, not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning of the process of becoming truly free.

Consequently, Seder Night teaches us that the first step in the process of becoming a truly liberated person, is to remember and know that G-d actively runs and controls the world. In order to be able to counter the many yokes, anxieties and vicissitudes of conventional life, we need to feel safe and secure in Divine Providence. Seder Night with all its rituals broadcasts the message of:

לְמַ֣עַן תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ

That you may know that I, the LORD, am in the midst of the land. Exodus 8:18

Similarly, Maimonides states that on the night of the 15th of Nisan “a person is obligated to show themselves as if they left Egypt and not to see themselves as having left Egypt.” 

As magical and mystical as the 15th of Nisan is, Seder Night is clearly only the commencement of Passover and the start of a much longer process. Logically it would seem to be presumptuous to speak about truly seeing oneself as having completely left “his personal Egypt” at the onset of Passover.

It is axiomatic that G-d wants us to actualize our potential and become the great men and women that we are supposed to be. Seder Night, and the entire Holiday of Passover is a gift from G-d designed for us to break the bonds that prevent us from actualizing our G-d given potential.

Remember this day and showing ourselves as if we left Egypt-challenges us to retell the story of the Exodus and to look for moments when G-d’s involvement in our life was openly apparent. When we can find and feel G-d’s presence in our lives, and we begin to actualize our potential, then we can begin to understand that we are part of the story of Jewish destiny.

The goal of Seder night then is to come to the realization, “that I am a character in our people’s story, with my own chapter to write, and so are we all. To be a Jew is to see yourself as part of that story, to make it live in our time, and to do your best to hand it on to those who will come after us.” (Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks OBM)